THE BLOG

Going Global: The Scramble For Supporters

05/07/2017 12:18 BST | Updated 05/07/2017 12:18 BST
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I've been going to watch Arsenal for over 40 years - supporting my team through thick and thin. Arsenal is my one team, for life, and I will continue to pay my hard-earned cash to join thousands of supporters each weekend to cheer, celebrate, and commiserate too. 

My experience is fairly typical for an Englishman of my generation - going to games with my dad from a young age in a routine established for decades to come. The whole experience was built around actually being in the stadium to witness great highs and lows. Anfield 1989 - I was there to watch Arsenal win the league. I felt a part of it. 

But lots has happened to football since my first trip to Highbury. The Gunners are no longer just a club for north Londoners (or those with the good sense to support Arsenal at any rate), but an institution with truly global appeal - one of the biggest clubs in the world by any metric. 

I've also discovered on my travels that today many of Arsenal's most passionate fans have never set foot in the Emirates Stadium. Their experience of the club (and football more broadly) is totally different to mine, but their passion and devotion is no less real. 

The spark for the global explosion of club football has, of course, been the sale of TV rights for the top European leagues. Billions of dollars have gone on securing rights for the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and others - broadcasting the beautiful game to every corner of the globe. 

On-the-ground operations by pioneering clubs like Man Utd and Real Madrid have followed. When I was a kid, Arsenal pre-season meant games at Barnet and Leyton Orient. Now, the top clubs organise sell-out rockstar tours to Asia, America, Australasia and beyond. I travelled to China with Arsenal a few years ago and the response was incredible. 

Any club with its finger on the pulse has global ambitions and it's no longer sufficient to rely on a few thousand diehards who will turn up week in, week out. What we have today is a true scramble for the estimated 3.5 billion football fans across the globe. 

At Dugout, we decided to really dig into these trends - polling 25,000 people to better understand football today. The insight was fascinating, but one particular finding grabbed my attention because it revealed a massive opportunity for clubs, players and brands to fundamentally change the way they recruit and retain fans. 

As sacrilegious as it may seem, we uncovered that the modern football fan is now polygamous: they support an average of 4.6 clubs across various leagues. As someone who's followed one team all my life, this finding shocked me at first. But when you consider how football is consumed today, it actually makes total sense. 

Take Indonesia, a country with 34 million football fans, but a weak domestic league and no globally renowned clubs or superstars. Over a typical weekend a fan there might watch four or five European matches on TV - staying up through the night to cheer on their teams in England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy. There is no stigma to supporting multiple clubs. Like Ronaldo and Messi? Then cheer on Real and Barca. The old rules simply don't apply.

In fact, this trend isn't just limited to countries without a strong domestic league. Our research found that Real Madrid and Barcelona are now in the top 10 clubs that fans follow in the UK. That would've been unthinkable 10 years ago. Today every match they play is shown live on Sky Sports.

It's not just TV rights. The rise of social media and popularity of games like FIFA and Pro Evolution have massively increased fans' knowledge of global football. This is especially true for younger supporters, who we found are more likely to support multiple teams than the generations before them. 

This shift presents a huge opportunity for clubs. Put simply, it means they can now work together to conquer new markets and build their fanbase. It's no longer a case of "one club per person" - everyone is back in play.

This was the fundamental insight behind Dugout, the company we created two years ago, to help clubs take advantage of this change, as well as the revolution we've seen in communications and digital publishing. 

Dugout is a digital publishing platform that brings the world's biggest clubs and players together in one place - a business built to harness their collective strength and give fans one ultimate destination to engage with exclusive video content from the teams and players they follow. 

We decided to build Dugout with the clubs on board. It took 18 months from initial conversations to sealing the deal, but by showing clubs the rationale for working together - and demonstrating the commercial potential - we secured the support of nine of the 10 biggest clubs in the world, the first time this has ever been done.

Our partners include A.C. Milan, Arsenal F.C., Chelsea F.C., FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, Juventus, Liverpool FC, Manchester City FC, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid CF, and many more, plus over 100 of the world's best-known footballers. 

Just think about that: clubs which are deadly rivals on the field joining forces to build a commercial venture. Real Madrid and Barcelona co-running a business! No wonder people told us it would be impossible.

But Dugout is an example of what happens when a group of organisations respond to a fundamental change in their sport. Early results have been fantastic, with over 23 million users joining the platform so far, however I'm most proud of what the company represents. We've shown that a bold, innovative approach can really shake up the status quo and transform the way players and clubs engage with their fans, as well as how they recruit new ones. 

Furthermore, analysing the most successful content on Dugout so far reveals another important lesson. The highest rated videos are those in which the players are totally unscripted and natural - having a laugh, revealing their personality and showing fans their love of the game. Patrice Evra joking around with a giant Panda got millions of hits!

Clubs are using Dugout to take fans behind the scenes and make them feel part of the community - a valued member of their family with connections to players and staff. This is key. In an age where relatively few fans make it to the stadium, creating that emotional bond between club and supporter has never been so important. 

Elliot is a contributor to SPORT - a new journal exploring the global sports industry, which has been published by The Brewery at freuds. The full publication is available online now https://tinyurl.com/yabyd6qs